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a tale of Restoration intrigue by

Molly Brown

Primrose Hill

Primrose Hill was the scene of one of the major turning points in late 17th century English history: the discovery of Sir Edmund Berry Godfrey's body.

Godfrey was a well known London magistrate. Fifty-seven years old at the time of his death, he had been educated at Westminster and Christ Church and been a prosperous wood and coal merchant. He was a well liked and respected man who had distinguished himself by remaining at his post in London during the Plague while others fled to safety in the country. A strict Protestant, he was also known for his tolerance of other faiths and had a wide circle of friends and acquaintances, including Samuel Pepys and the Duke of York's Catholic secretary, Edward Coleman.

When on 13 August 1678, the chemist Christopher Kirkby stopped Charles II while he was out walking in St James's Park and told him that a group of Catholics were planning to murder him, Kirkby said he had heard about the plot from Dr Israel Tongue. When Tongue was questioned, he said he'd had his information from a man named Titus Oates.

Together Oates and Tongue had drawn up an indictment of 43 articles, the gist of which was that Pope Innocent XI was behind a Jesuit plot to overthrow the king and government of England. The indictment contained such details as that the funding was to come from both the Spanish Jesuits and the King of France's confessor, two Jesuits had been paid to shoot the king, four Irishmen to stab him, and the queen's physician, Sir George Wakeman, to poison him. There was also to be a massacre of Protestants and a French invasion of Ireland - the point of it all being to put James, Duke of York, on the throne, under the direct control of the Jesuits.

Oates and Tonge called on Godfrey in early September, with the request that he take their depositions on oath as to the truth of the accusations contained in the papers which they brought with them. Godfrey refused unless he was informed of the contents of the papers - he was provided with a copy on 28 September, and then took their depositions. (Godfrey warned the Duke of York's secretary of the contents of Oates and Tongue's depositions. As it turned out, the duke's secretary had been in correspondence with the French king's confessor, but he even though he had been warned, Edward Coleman did not destroy his incriminating papers. Coleman's letters were found and he was executed for treason.)

By the beginning of October, Oates's accusations had become public knowledge; the mood of the country was apprehensive, but not hysterical. Then Edmund Berry Godfrey disappeared.

He was last seen alive on the morning of Saturday, 12 October 1678. He left his house in Green's Lane near the Strand, and was later seen walking up St. Martin's Lane. After that, there are several conflicting reports. He was said to have asked an acquaintance the way to Primrose Hill; he was also said to have been seen at Marylebone. Another claimed to have seen him in the company of a churchwarden at St. Martin's-in-the-Fields.

Godfrey did not return home that night. On the evening of Thursday, 17 October, two men told the landlord of the White House tavern near Primrose Hill that they had seen a stick and a pair of gloves lying by the hedge. The landlord accompanied them back to the spot, some waste ground on the south side of the hill, and there in a ditch behind some bushes, they found the body of the missing magistrate. He had been run through with his own sword.

The inquest was held at the White House tavern the next day. The verdict was wilful murder, though the evidence suggested the murder had not been committed on the spot; there was no evidence of a struggle and though the ground was muddy, there were no traces of mud on the dead man's shoes. Also, two boys looking for a missing calf had searched the area two or three days earlier; there had been no stick, gloves or body then. The obvious conclusion was that Godfrey had been murdered elsewhere before being dumped at Primrose Hill.

Something else was strange about the body. There was a livid circle about Godfrey's neck; he had apparently died by strangulation and only been run through with the sword after death.

Godfrey's death sent the nation into panic; not only was his murder taken as proof that all Oates's accusations were true - his name became an anagram: Dy'd by Rome's reveng'd fury.

A commercially minded cutler made a special "Godfrey" dagger with the words "remember the murder of Edmund Berry Godfrey" on one side and "remember religion" on the other. Three thousand were sold in one day.

A commemorative medal was struck, sermons were preached, pamphlets were printed, and a reward of 500 was offered for the discovery of the murderers.

At this point, a man who referred to himself as "Captain" William Bedloe entered the scene. He said that he had been taken to Somerset House on the night of Monday, 14 October, to see the body of Edmund Berry Godfrey, and there he saw two men, one of whom was Samuel Pepys's servant, Samuel Atkins. Atkins was arrested, but was able to prove beyond doubt that he had been on a yacht at Greenwich during the time in question. Meanwhile, a Roman Catholic silversmith named Prance was arrested.

Prance had once been overheard saying that the Jesuits were honest men; he had also, according to a lodger in his house, been absent from home for the four nights preceeding the discovery of Godfrey's body. Bedloe claimed to recognize him from the evening at Somerset House and accused him of Godfrey's murder. Prance was thrown into Newgate. Manacled and awaiting execution, he received an unnamed visitor who told him what to say if he wanted to save his life. He then confessed that he had been hired by a priest to murder Godfrey as one of the queen's enemies. He said three others had acted with him: Green, Berry, and Hill. (Hill and Berry were servants at Somerset House, where Queen Catherine had her residence.)

He said Godfrey had been followed along the Strand, then lured into Somerset House where he was murdered and his body hidden in a room until the Wednesday, when it was taken by sedan chair to Soho and then by horseback to Primrose Hill. Two days later he recanted his confession. Cast back into the condemned hole at Newgate, he recanted his recantation (in front of Charles himself). He recanted at least one more time before finally swearing once again to the truth of his original confession, with one addition: that he himself was one of the murderers. Green, Berry and Hill were hanged in February 1679.

The plot remained a national obsession for the next three years. "The credulous all over the kingdoms were terrified and affrighted with armies landing, of pilgrims, black bills, armies under ground and what not." The cellars of Parliament were searched and an armed guard was sent to intercept any Jesuit explosives experts. Women carried loaded pistols in their muffs. In April 1679, Titus Oates said that James I had been murdered, that the Great Rebellion and the death of Charles I and been due to the Jesuits, and that the Duke of York had started the Great Fire. A famous pamphlet of the time - a best seller - urged Protestant citizens to go to the top of the Monument in the City and imagine the consequences of Popish rule:

The plot finally ran out of steam in the early 1680's. In 1683, Titus Oates was fined £100,000 for accusing the Duke of York of treason. He was unable to pay the fine, and in 1685 was pilloried, flogged, and sentenced to life imprisonment.

Meanwhile, about 35 Catholics had been executed for their supposed connection with the plot and to this day, no one knows what really happened to Edmund Berry Godfrey. Theories abound, everything from suicide made to look like murder to a random attack by a robber.

There is an interesting coincidence regarding the names of the three men hung for Godfrey's murder and the place where his body was found. In former times, Primrose Hill had been called Greenberry Hill.

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(c) 1996 Molly Brown